For the duration I’ve been listening to Thomas Meluch’s music (a mere four years or so), I’ve heard his hazes of sound thicken into songs and then evaporate again. Our conversation below touches on dreams as a pool of inspiration. Like dreams, Meluch’s music is a cycle of shapes emerging from obscurity and figures dissipating into analogue dust. It’s beautiful. Sonnet was released earlier this year, and it’s my favourite record of his thus far.
The first time I heard your music was when I reviewed Plays Thelma for ATTN a few years back, and then I was assigned to review Hymnal for Rock-A-Rolla when that came out. I’ve always tried to keep tabs on what you’re doing, but music always seems to have found its way to me. That’s been a real delight for me.
Thank you, that’s very sweet. I still don’t know how to properly react to that kind of thing after all these years. I record at home whenever I want, hand it off to someone else and they get it out there. And then I find out that people in England and Italy and Turkey – or places I’ve never even been to – have been getting in touch. It’s pretty wild.
I guess there’s a certain containment in the fact that you’re still creating music in the same way you always have done.
Yeah. I’m really glad to have avoided ever having to go to a studio or anything like that. Compared to being at home, it just involves so much pressure. I’m sitting at my desk right now, which is normally surrounded by guitars, my amplifier and pedals. I can just click them on whenever inspiration strikes me or if I find myself with a free moment. With going into a studio it’s very regimented. You arrive at, say, 11 o’clock, and you’ve got until 3 o’clock to do a certain amount of work. It just doesn’t work that way for me. I can’t imagine it turning out well unless you’re some kind of professional, which I’m definitely not.
Does the studio also sit at odds to how your music manifests over duration? Is it a slow process of building the music over time?
It’s worked in different ways. Last week I found myself revisiting the recordings I made as a teenager for the first time in years; I was just thumbing through my iPod and I realised that they were there. It’s interesting to know that I’ve been doing things in pretty much the same way for half my life at this point. It evolved a lot once I moved on from recording on four-track cassette to recording on a computer like I do now, between 2003 and 2004. The major change is that it allowed me to open up my options and record more tracks for a given song; on a four-track you’re pretty limited as to how many things you can have going on at once. I still use Garageband, and with that I can do 12 or 13 tracks and then bounce that to do another 12 or 13 tracks. That’s what I always wanted to do when I was still using a four-track, but that was before I even realised you could record digitally at home.
It’s amazing that you still use Garageband.
I’ve developed my own palette of things, and I probably have quite convoluted ways to get the sound that I want that would be easier with other software. It’s just that when I’ve worked with my friend Rafael Irisarri…he’s a wizard using Ableton and Cubase. I’ll describe a sound I’m hearing, and if he wants to create a patch he can do it in a matter of seconds. I would probably take hours using analogue effects and tweaking things in Garageband to get what I wanted. But that’s still really satisfying – it’s not like I get frustrated by going in a round-about way. Something like Ableton would just give me too many options. It’d be daunting figuring things out for myself.
With Sonnet, it seems that you imposed certain constraints on the way you went about the composition process. What was the reason behind doing that?
I think the main impetus was that I just wasn’t feeling inspired to write lyrics or structure. My wife and I lived in the south-eastern UK for a while – she went to West Dean College in West Sussex, and so I was there with her. It took us a while to move back to the US and resettle in Seattle, so during the time that I wasn’t able to regularly make recordings, I just used my tape player and the digital recorder on my iPhone to create field recordings and dub those into the computer. I began to amass a trove of things that I liked but didn’t know what to do with, and once I had some time to actually start recording, those were the first things that I started to arrange. Then I built guitar things on top of them and ended up replacing some of the sounds and harmonies in the field recordings with things on the guitar, melodica, bells, voice…other things I had at my disposal. I didn’t have any intention of making an instrumental full album – I was just doing it to get it out of my system. It’s a compulsion first of all, and then it ends up forming itself into these nice tidy packets like that.
I imagine it’s quite nice for an album to create itself of its own will like that.
Yeah, that’s how it’s always felt. Like I said I’ve been recording since my early teens, and there was no drive other than to make some noise. I felt so inspired by the things I was discovering at that time when I was 12 or 13, like Brian Eno and Aphex Twin. It just blew my mind wide open, in the sense that I didn’t realise you could do that with music up until that point. I was listening to a lot of guitar-based things – Nirvana and so forth – and then once I realised that you can write a really beautiful, emotionally-moving song without the use of any guitars or proper instruments, that was the beginning of my fascination with creating things for myself. I started on guitars and drums, and the only instrument I’m trained on is piano. For some reason, using organic things coupled with non-organic things that can be made to sound organic, if that makes any sense…that’s been the pursuit this whole time.
When you’re making these field recordings, are you merely capturing things that are intriguing to you? Or are you consciously aware of a musicality within the things you’re recording?
There’s an element of curation in what I find myself drawn to. Like I said I was keeping a tape recorder with me all the time, and if I was going to work and I had a break, I would take it out with me in case something caught my ear. On the second track of Sonnet there’s a recording, way in the background, of a Vietnamese day parade that happened to be going past the place that I work – you can kind of hear some voices bubbling up from that in the background. In that sense, I think that everything I’ve ever recorded has been a document of its time and place. With some of the things I was listening to on my old tapes, I would think, “I should have gone back and re-recorded that.” But then I think that it’s exactly how it would have happened at that time and it’s perfect in that way. There have been a couple of songs that I’ve done several versions of just because there seemed to be so many possibilities with the structure, but in general once I write a song I’ll record it as quickly as possible and then just let it be. It’s like a journal entry.
Was that the driver behind the absence of digital after-effects on this record?
Yeah. I wanted to see what I could get away with in terms of exploring my guitar pedals. There’s one I have – the Boss DD-20 – that I’ve always used for looping both live and on recordings. I came to realise that there were dozens of features on it that I just hadn’t employed before. Several pieces on the record began with improvisations. I would set just an arbitrary loop length and just pick out a few notes on the guitar, and then build it up over the course of an hour or two with my amplifier going in the living room, and then come back to it and record it on tape, then on my reel-to-reel, and then combine all of those recordings of the same loop into something.
I feel like I’m overdue some more tape machines. The ones that I have – cassette tape, micro-cassette, ¼” reel-to-reel – all of them have very different qualities. I don’t know if they can be picked out by anybody that didn’t make the tracks on the record, but I can recognise instantly what was recorded on which machine. For instance, the track called “So Etched In Memory” was all done on the reel-to-reel that my wife gave me for my birthday. That’s got a kind of wobbly warbly thing going on; I don’t know if it’s because of some kind of regulating mechanism inside, or the tape itself being really old. I find that the more you use a particular length of tape, the less fidelity you get. You can even sometimes hear the ghosts of other things that were recorded on the same tape when you record over it.
Do you ever buy blank tapes, or do you only work with tapes that have already been used?
I don’t think I’ve used a virgin cassette in quite a while. The one in my micro-cassette player right now has been in there for four or five years. A lot of the original recordings that I’ve released are just gone forever…I don’t know if that’s a good thing or a bad thing. I’ve always liked the idea of mandalas – the sort of thing where you spend a lot of time building it up and then you just destroy it. Like I said, recording is a compulsion. I feel that if I rest too much on something, there’s not going to be as much inspiration to move on and keep trying new things.
I understand that a lot of the compositions were partly derived from dreams. Does that happen a lot?
You can’t be sure whether what you’re doing while you’re awake is the same, or even anywhere close to what you heard in a dream, but the motivation was there at least. I started taking valerian capsules to sleep, which is a naturally occurring herb. Taking one of those helps me sleep more soundly than I naturally do, and seems to activate much more vivid dreams when I get into deep sleep. The few times that I’ve found myself waking from a deep sleep after taking valerian were the times when I had something in my head that I had quickly run over and tried to replicate. Again, I don’t know how close it was to the dream, but the motivation definitely came from something I was feeling or hearing or experiencing in a dream state.
Does the visual aspect of your dreams play any part in your music, or is it just the sonic stuff?
I don’t like the term psychedelic because it’s way overused, but the dreams I remember most vividly are very unusual and pleasant. I don’t know how to describe them…they’re kind of fantastical. I had one a few weeks ago where I was able to form a circle with my thumb and finger and look through that circle, and everything I was seeing would turn into some kind of kaleidoscopic vortex. So I do have highly visual dreams from time to time. It’s not every night, although that would be pretty cool. But yeah, there’s a very strong visual component there. The sound is even more rare than that, where I’ll hear something and think to myself – inside the dream – “this needs to be captured!” If I could find a trick to make that happen every single day, I would. I’ve just got to take it where it comes.
I’ve had one instance in my life where I’ve been able to record a melody I heard in my dream. It’s irritating though, right? You just think, “how can I recreate the conditions that brought sound into my dream?”
“That picture was slightly askew, the cat was sleeping on my feet…”
I read that you used to set these loops going as a child and fall asleep to them, and that these loops had potentially been coming back in vivid dreams over the past few years. Do you think that any of Sonnet could be a subconscious regurgitation of anything from your childhood?
Could be. The first recordings I ever made were on this crappy boom box with a built-in microphone. I bought blank tapes at the store and would carry it with me while walking through the forest, or take it into my little clubhouse that I had in the back yard. I call it a clubhouse but I was the only person that ever went in there. We were surrounded by all kinds of birds, and I would record them and play those tapes back to myself. I would enjoy putting on headphones and listening back to those later, putting myself back in that environment but also appreciating the fact that there was a huge amount of background tape hiss coming from the medium itself, so it was a combination of those two things.
The marriage of the medium with the things that I’m making is really important – the fact that there’s so much contingency. That’s also why I don’t feel the need to go into studios. If I’m recording and there’s a plane flying overhead, you get that noise in the background. I was reading about the new Surfjan Stevens record that he just recorded in his apartment, and you can hear the air conditioner going in the background. I think that’s really important to creating an atmosphere in a record – knowing the circumstances and the context in addition to the agency of the person making it.
That circumstantiality really comes through on Sonnet as well.
I don’t think I’ll ever record an album like this one again. I don’t ever know what’s going to happen next. Every time I finish something for Kranky, I tell myself, “well – that’ll probably be it.” When I finished my first 7” record, which came out ten years ago at this point, I remember holding it in my hands and thinking, “I can die now. This is great”. I’ve just had quite a bit of luck since then. My relationship with Kranky is really good. I can’t imagine working with anybody else; at least not as successfully.
You just released Stanza, too – was that designed as a low-key companion piece to Sonnet?
Yeah, exactly. The concept I had in mind was to make a piece of music every day for a week and that’s what came out. So I set aside some time, woke up at 7am each morning and by 10 or 11am I would have that piece done. Then I wouldn’t touch it. The track sequence is chronological too – I think I started on a Tuesday and then ended on a Monday. I used the same materials of guitar and tapes to make each one. I enjoy loop-based music as an everyday thing; it can be backgrounded or something that I focussing on. William Basinski’s Disintegration Loops is one of my all-time favourite collections of music.
My wife and I moved into a new apartment a few months ago and it’s much bigger than our old one. I’ve just enjoyed being in here and living with the space and how sound behaves in it. Working with those loops and making pieces here has been really wonderful in a way that I hadn’t had the privilege of in a while, and so making Stanza was a way to fully inhabit the new home here.
I guess this may be hard to explicitly identify, but have you noticed any changes in your sound that may have occurred as a direct result of now being in a different environment?
I’ve just been way more productive I think. Our old place was kind of small so the things I could have out at a given time were pretty limited. Inspiration seemed a little bit harder to come by for whatever reason. Having this space all at my disposal has allowed me to feel like I have a much greater set of options and a wider palette of things to use. This year so far I’ve already made two more albums of music. I don’t know how much of that is going to be released or saved for later, but I’ve just been plugging away and it’s been really great.
And the cover image of Sonnet – can you tell me about that?
That was just a polaroid photo I took last year with one of the last packets of polaroid film. I have one more packet in the fridge that I’m just trying to hold onto, but it needs to be used before it expires. I’m just so obsessed with the format and I’ve done most of my record covers with polaroid film. The very day I finished recording the last piece for Sonnet, I went for a walk in the park. It was in late Spring – mid-May of last year. As I looked up, I just saw this single flower that was the sign of Spring really coming out.
I saw it at a distance to begin with and I thought the flower was a hot air balloon.
The perspective is quite strange on it. Someone thought it was a gigantic flower. It’s just that the flower’s way in the foreground and the trees are way in the background, so it just looks much bigger than it is. Sometimes I spend a lot of time framing and centring photos, but I just took the camera out and snapped that one right away. I didn’t expect it to be so striking when it developed but the colour saturation was kind of amazing. I also took the back cover image of the LP on the same day, lying in the grass at the park probably 20 minutes later.